Traditionally bulls have been confined during winter and fed grain as well as hay, but some producers are wintering their bulls in larger pastures and letting them grow (or maintain) under more natural conditions. This often leads to better health, better fertility and longevity.
Arron Nerbas of Nerbas Brothers Angus, near Shellmouth, in western Manitoba, says their breeding program emphasizes forage-based genetics, and focuses primarily on maternal traits. “Our goal is to make better cows,” says Nerbas. “We sell bulls, but producing bulls is not what drives our genetic decisions. We are primarily trying to make better cows, on our own operation
“We often get asked if we have any heifer bulls. There’s no such thing as a heifer bull in our world. Our goal is for every bull we use to be capable of producing a high-quality female that has the potential to be a productive cow in our herd. That transfers to the bulls we sell to our customers. Generally, ‘heifer bulls’ are used to ensure that calving ease is the top priority (above any other traits) and in most cases that calf will never be retained in the herd as a female. This does not serve our goal.”
The Nerbas program is mainly a commercial operation, with a smaller herd of purebred cows. They run 600 cows total, and the commercial cows in the Nerbas herd are straight-bred Angus, but not papered.
“Our purpose for the registered cows is to create our own bulls for use on the commercial herd,” he says. “We have not purchased an outside animal for more than 20 years. We use artificial insemination to bring in new bloodlines that complement what we are doing. As a byproduct of making our own bulls for our commercial herd, we sell about 60 bulls to other ranchers each year. About 10 per cent of those are purebred bulls because we have more of them than what we can use for ourselves, and 90 per cent are commercial bulls. They are not papered, have no parent verification and no numbers behind them. Our cow herd, and what they produce, are proof enough of what these bulls will do.”
Producing what the customer wants
This program works for their bull buyers.
“We target our marketing toward the people who appreciate what we are doing and are like-minded,” Nerbas says. “If a rancher has grass-based genetics and wants a good bull that provides forage efficiency and good maternal traits, these are the type of bulls that work well.”
Nerbas says their bulls also work well for crossbreeding. They provide good maternal influence, and calving ease. He has strong opinions about calving ease. People market heifer bulls, but in their ranch environment they are all heifer bulls.
“All of our genetics are suitable for breeding heifers,” he says. “If a person is not trying for extremes in growth, and other traits that are antagonistic to maternal traits, all bulls should be heifer bulls.”
The Nerbas bulls are developed a little differently than most seedstock operations. They calve in May and wean the first week of December. This is a little early (the calves are six to seven months old) but they wean at that time so the calves are off the cows and the cows can go to bale grazing. The cows bale graze for several months, starting mid-December until mid-April.
“We experimented with later weaning in the past but we feel that weaning in December works a little better for us,” Nerbas says. When the bulls are weaned they go to their own big pasture/wintering site and not into a corral. Only the sale bulls (approaching two-years-old) are held temporarily in corral for viewing.
The young weaned bulls go to a wintering site and are fed good-quality hay and no grain.
“We roll out hay for them, usually a few days’ feed at a time, and provide straw for bedding to protect them from the elements a little and prevent scrotal frostbite,” Nerbas says.
“Those young bulls gain between one to 1.5 pounds per day through their first winter. Some people would say this slow rate of growth is detrimental to their long-term development, but we feel the opposite is true. As long as you are not in a hurry to use that bull for breeding — waiting until he’s a two-year-old rather than a yearling — this works very well.” The two-year-old has had time to grow into what he needs to be.
Eating, not fighting
“Some Angus breeders have yearling bulls that weigh 1,400 pounds,” Nerbas says. “Our bulls are nowhere near that size, but we are looking at how long our bulls will last in the breeding herd. When our young bulls come off their wintering site they stay in their group when they go to pasture. We try to keep them together the whole time they are growing up, and don’t introduce any new animals. This helps reduce fighting. We want them eating grass and growing, not fighting.
“Each group of bulls has their grass pasture for summer. Pastures with better-quality forage are selected for the young growing bulls. They are brought home in fall, usually in November, and put on good-quality hay. They have access to a corral where there is water, but they go out to their feeding area. Bulls are fed some whole oats at that time, but no more than one per cent of their body weight.”
“At some point we may eliminate the oats as part of the ration,” says Nerbas. “But it gives these young bulls a boost on their nutrition as they go through that second winter. It gives them a little added weight gain and condition, while not being detrimental to their development.” Bulls are sold from February through April just under two years of age.
Nerbas says they are at an age when they can go to work and can breed a lot more cows and last a lot longer than yearlings that were pushed to get to “sale weight” as yearlings.
“The downside of what we do is that our bulls last too long. Our customers don’t have to come back very soon. They are not buying a bull nearly as often, but this is better for our customers.”
Their own bulls, after two years of age, winter as a group and are fed good-quality hay along with some greenfeed or slough hay.
“They never look super good until the following spring when grass is green,” he says. “But they really bloom before the breeding season and are ready to go to work.”